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GRÉGORY GAULTIER: "HAVING BEEN AT THE TOP FOR SO MANY YEARS IS WHAT I AM REALLY PROUD OF."

Équipe de france 01/04

With his victory over Nick Matthew last Sunday in the British Open final, Grégory Gaultier didn't only put his name on the winners' list of the so-called “Wimbledon of the squash” for the third time.

Dr (Click here to read the interview in French)

Thanks to an outstanding beginning of 2017, the Frenchman also became the oldest world number 1 in the history of squash - both men and women included. But more than this record, he takes some pride in having been at the top of the game for so many years. We've had a long chat with the “French General” last Wednesday, just before his afternoon training in Prague - where he lives with his wife and son. For almost an hour, he very openly covered a wide range of topics.

Jérôme Elhaïk: Hi Greg, thanks for taking the time to speak to me. Did you get the chance to celebrate your British Open title?

Grégory Gaultier: Not really. We just went to a very good restaurant on Sunday evening with Renan (Lavigne, national coach), Matthieu (Benoit, his osteopath), and Florent (Ehrstein, physio from the French Federation). But we didn't drink at all, because the next World Series event in El Gouna is coming up very soon (from April 7th to 14th).

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Grégory Gaultier with his team, from left to right to right: Matthieu Benoit, Florent Ehrstein and Renan Lavigne (Photo credit: Steve Cubbins)

J.E.: What have you been doing since the British Open ended?

G.G: I went back to Prague for a few days, and before flying to Egypt, I am going to Aix on Saturday to play French League (the interview was made on Wednesday. Gaultier and his team Aix narrowly qualified for the French playoffs for the ninth time in a row).

J.E.: It was your third British Open title – ten years after the first one - and your fourteenth in a World Series event. Do you always enjoy it as much every time?

G.G: I'd say every time is different. I had already won the British Open twice, and some players have done it ten times (he's referring to Jahangir Khan). Of course when you are young, you're ecstatic when you win a big tournament for the first time. Last Sunday, I was rather satisfied to see all the hard work pay off. But once again, each title is different.

J.E.: You didn't celebrate too much after beating Nick Matthew, certainly not as much as you did recently in some occasions. Why is that?

G.G: I don't really know why. It's difficult to explain why you react in such and such way after a big win. I'd say it's probably due to the way the match went down. It's not as if we'd been at 10-all in the fifth and there'd been a crazy rally. 

“In the final, I gradually got the upper hand from the second game onwards.”

J.E.: I agree, and the score shows that you dominated the end of the match (11-3 11-3 in the third and fourth games).

G.G: Indeed, I felt like he had somehow surrendered towards the end. I gradually got the upper hand from the second game onwards. In the third, his movement was slower and he wasn't volleying as much. But it makes sense because he had a tougher route to the final than I did (the Englishman had beaten Tarek Momen in five games in the quarters and previous world number 1 Mohamed El Shorbagy in the semis).

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Grégory Gaultier and Nick Matthew have huge respect for each other (Photo credit: Steve Cubbins)

J.E.: Yet that's him who got off to a better start.

G.G: I couldn't find my length at the beginning of the match. I was going short too early, he was countering well and was at the T more often. But as the match went on I started to find my rhythm. When I was 8-2 down in the first, I told myself that even if I lost this game, it was important to extend it and put some work into his legs. So that he wouldnt gain too much confidence – otherwise it could have become difficult – but also because I knew that the more the match would last, the better it would be for me.

J.E.: It's nothing new, but this final was played in a great spirit and we could feel the respect between you guys during and after the match.

G.G: Nick and I have known each other since the juniors, even if he is two years older than me. The first time we played each other was in the World Junior Team Championship in 1998, I was in U16 and he was in U19. I had lost comprehensively, but six months later I got my revenge at the European Championship. Since then, we obviously met a lot of times, on the PSA World Tour as well as in team events (49 times according to www.squashinfo.com but this number does not include club league matches). We also know each other very well off the court, as I said during the prize ceremony we did some stupid things together when we were young (he laughs). We also went to a tournament in the Réunion Islands together in 2005, it was good fun. I've been to his place, he's been to mine, so yes our relationship goes far beyond squash. Whenever one of us wins a tournament, the other one sends him a congratulation message. Like I did recently after he won in Canary Wharf, he'd been playing extremely well all week overthere. 

“There's a lot of talk about the youngsters these days, but we're showing that our generation was very strong.”

J.E.: You and Nick are 34 and 36 years old, but still very much among the best players in the world.

G.G: Yeah. There's a lot of talk about the youngsters these days, especially the Egyptians, but it's very satisfying to show that our generation was very strong. There were not only Nick and I, but also James Willstrop and Karim Darwish. We've all been world number 1, so it really means something doesn'it?

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Grégory Gaultier was merciless against Colombian Miguel Angel Rodriguez in the first round (Photo credit: www.insidethegames.biz)

J.E.: The way you dispatched your opponents in the early rounds was very impressive in Hull, thus you came in the final relatively fresh. Player often relax when they are 2-0 up, but you don't …

G.G: Well when I am 2-0 up, my coaches always tell me to keep on playing at 100 percent in the third game. And if there's one thing I know, it's that experienced players know how to take advantage if their opponent relaxes. My approach is to keep playing point by point, not thinking too much about the score. As far as I am concerned I've lost only three times after being 2-0 up during my whole career, but it's true that when a match goes well, you can quickly lose your concentration and then struggle to finish it off, if not lose it stupidly. It is in some level what happened in the women's semi-final between Nour El Sherbini and Laura Massaro. Nour was clearly on top in the first two games but she came in the third with a little less intensity, and Laura fully took advantage.

J.E.: You're having an outstanding beginning of 2017 (Tournament of Champions runner-up and then winner in the Swedish Open, the Windy City Open and the British Open), but 2016 had been a tough one for you, with a lot of injuries.

G.G: Yes 2016 was a really complicated year. I was unable to play for long periods of time, but it's not as if I was having a rest because every time I did absolutely everything to come back as soon as possible. After my serious ankle injury in January at the ToC, I worked really hard every single day, doing rehab as well as fitness sessions. But all professional athletes know that after a break, it takes time to come back to your best. I started to train on the whole court only two weeks before the British Open, so it was very short in terms of preparation. Plus, my foot was still fragile. Then I had to regain some match fitness, and it was frustrating not to be able to play at 100 percent.

J.E.: You returned to a very good level at the end of 2016-2017 (runner-up in El Gouna and winner in the World Series finals), but you had more physical issues at the beginning of the fall.

G.G.: The thing is, I didn't have any holiday in the summer, neither did I have a real break. So I came in the Hong Kong Open pretty tired, and to make things worse, I got elbowed in the face while training two days before leaving. I ended up with a broken nose and a bruised eye. I was struggling a lot during the following weeks, especially in terms of court awareness and reaction time because I could not see the ball properly. So when I got injured again after my quarter in the World Championship in November, we decided that I'd take the time to heal completely before playing again. I needed it physically as well as mentally. I played the British Grand Prix in December without much preparation, and then I rested for a full week over Christmas.

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2016 was a tough year for the French number 1, during which he spent a lot of time nursing injuries (Photo credit: Facebook Grégory Gaultier)

“I really wanted to prove that I was still at the top after a difficult year.”

J.E.: How do you explain you've had such great results so far in 2017?

G.G: I was very hungry and really wanted to prove that I was still at the top after such a bad year in 2016. I was gutted not to be able to defend my chances in some of the big tournaments and in the meantime players like Nick and Ramy Ashour also missed a few. So the competition wasn't as fierce as it usually is and other guys took advantage of that. As far as I am concerned, I knew that I was capable of winning World Series again. My entourage was also convinced of that and was telling me so. So I really dug in to come back. After 30 years playing squash, you don't lose the racket skills so it's mainly mental.

J.E.: What happens between tournaments is also important though.

G.G: Yes for sure. For example, between my title in Chicago and the British Open, I spent two weeks at the CREPS in Aix-en-Provence, especially to take care of the tendinopathy in my hamstring. It was bothering me in New York and it still requires daily care. During these two weeks, my schedule was initially quite light and then we upped the intensity as the British Open got closer. I took it easy a couple of days just before it started, because on paper I had a few tough first rounds. We didn't think I'd beat guys like Rodriguez or Pilley in 30 minutes or so.

J.E.: You just mentionned the CREPS. How do you share your time between Aix-en-Provence and Prague?

G.G: My family is in Prague, so obviously I spend most of my time here. But the CREPS is a great facility with an ideal environment: in terms of coaching, training partners as well as the care I can benefit from on a daily basis. That's also where my fitness coach - Thomas Adriaens – is based. But I also have a good environment here. I have access to several clubs, especially for my fitness sessions. I talk to Thomas every day, and I am often in touch with Renan and Matthieu as well. I also have somebody who can come on court with me for the squash specific routines. As you can see, I am well organized! Besides, a few players came over: Paul Coll, Chris Simpson, Mahesh Mangaonkar and most of the players from the Czech national team. It seems like they are interested in training with me (he laughs).

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New Zealander Paul Coll, one of the rising forces on the tour, came to Prague to train with Gaultier (Photo credit: Facebook Paul Coll)

J.E.: As everyone knows, thanks to your win in Hull you are back to world number 1, at 34 years old. How does that makes you feel?

G.G: As I've said already, I didn't even know that the world number 1 spot was at stake. I only found out reading some articles during the tournament. But I don't tend to think about rankings too much, because it's the best way to lose focus. The most important thing is what happens on court. If you win your matches, you go up the rankings, if you lose you go down: it's as simple as that. Therefore I am not obsessed with the world number 1 spot and I don't make my schedule with that in mind. For example, I am going to play a lot during the next few weeks - El Gouna, Grasshopper Cup, Seattle and World Series Finals in Dubai – which means my average could go down. On the other hand, I will have a lighter schedule at the beginning of 2017-2018, in order to be in the best possible shape for the big events that are the World Championships, both team and individual, in December.

“Having been at the top for so many years is what really stirs me.”

J.E.: Besides the world number 1 spot, you've been at the top for a very long time (see the Ranking History part at the end of the article).

G.G: That's something I am really proud of. It's not as if I'd been world number 1 for a month and then disappeared. Yet I could have been in the top 10 for even longer because I was ranked between 9 and 12 for a while (between 2004 and 2006). This is the reward for my hard work and perseverance. I've had highs and lows, such as any sportsman. You cannot always be at your best, and even when I wasn't, I almost always managed to reach the latter stages in the big events. I haven't been ranked below 5 or 6 for a long time, even though this is a ranking I am not happy with. Everybody has his own goals, and mine is to be the best. There are different kind of champions, and the ones I like the most are those who are at the top over a long period of time. To be able to bounce back after a hard blow – such as a bad injury – and to come back to my best is what really stirs me. That's why I am so pleased with my current results after such a difficult year.

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Grégory Gaultier's three British Open titles over a decade are a true testimony of the longevity of the Frenchman (Photo credit: www.greg-gaultier.com, www.worldsquash.org, Steve Cubbins)

J.E. : Is leaving a mark in the history of the sport important for you?

G.G: Not really. The most important thing is that all the hard work I put in is reflected in my results. When that happens, I am especially happy for my team. They are so committed that it's important for them that it pays dividends. Otherwise, it can be quite frustrating.

J.E.: Speaking of history, the World Team Championship – which will take place in Marseille at the end of the year – is among the very few big titles you haven't won yet. But before that there will be the European Team Championship at the end of April. We found out a few days ago that youngster Benjamin Aubert got picked for the first time. What do you think of him?

G.G: Benjamin is a fast improving young player. We sometimes train together in Aix and I like him a lot. He's a very curious guy and he really listens. When I am on court doing some routines, I can see he's watching very carefully. He's fully committted and when I am at the CREPS I can see he's there from morning to evening. He's very passionate about squash and dedicates his life to it. His main problem are his recurring injuries and he'll have to find a way to sort that out.

J.E.: As far as you are concerned, you made your debut in the French national team at an even younger age. Do you remember the first time you got picked?

G.G: Yes of course, it was at the 1999 World Championship in Egypt (he was 16 years old), alongside Thierry Lincou, Renan Lavigne and Jean-Michel Arcucci. Actually, I should already have made my debut at the European Championship earlier that year, but I had already played in the junior competition – both individual and team events – just before, therefore the coach (Fred Lecomte) had decided that with this heavy schedule I was going to miss school too much. Reminiscing about this does not make me feel any younger!

J.E.: I suppose that the World Team Championship in Marseille is a very special event for the French players?

G.G: Obviously. I don't know the arena we'll be playing in, but we can't wait to be there. I have very good memories of the 2013 event in Mulhouse, especially the atmosphere. And from what I was told, the crowd also enjoyed it a lot.

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The 2013 World Team Championship in Mulhouse was a special moment for Gaultier and the French team (Photo credit: www.squashsite.co.uk)

J.E.: Even if the Internationaux de France took place in 2008 (won by Gaultier, with a prize money slightly over $60,000), our country never hosted a World Series event. Mathieu Castagnet was recently telling me how this was a true regret in his career.

G.G: I agree, it's a reaI shame. So many people tell me they would love to go a big tournament in France and cheer for us. In order to play in front of a French crowd, I have to play exhibition matches, which are not quite the same thing.

J.E.: Nevertheless there've been some positive signs lately, with more and more tournaments being set up, especially the one in Nantes.

G.G: I've been told many good things about this tournament, apparently the organizers are doing a great job. I'd be more than happy to take part provided the prize money goes up a notch: if I play a $25,000, even if I win it it would be my worst result of the year in terms of ranking points. But who knows, perhaps I will have the opportunity to play a PSA tournament in France to end my career.

“The level of the French players has been improving and that's a very good thing.”

J.E.: Let's come back to the French team, who will be among the top 3 contenders in Marseille.

G.G: Yes and with that in mind, Mathieu Castagnet's return is very good news. He went through a very rough patch with a series of injuries and he started asking himself a lot of questions. Therefore beating Willstrop (in the first round of the British Open) while not being at his best physically yet is a great win. I am very happy for him. Let's hope he can quickly make his way back to the top 10 and reach the goals he's set up for his career.

J.E.: Grégoire Marche and Lucas Serme have also improved a lot recently.

G.G: Definitely. The general level of the French players has been improving and that's a very good thing. In order to go far in a tournament, you need a team with strength in depth. I noticed that Lucas has had a breakthrough lately. He is much more solid than he used to be. I think he's realized a lot of things that enabled him to develop his game.

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Grégory Gaultier is delighted with the progress of his French teammates (Photo credit: Facebook EuroSquash2016)

J.E.: Besides the usual favourites Egypt and England, what teams will you be wary of?

G.G: There are a few countries that will be dangerous, especially those who have strength in depth. There's no point having a very strong number 1 if there is a big gap with the other players. I am mainly thinking about Australia with Ryan Cuskelly and Cameron Pilley, and Hong-Kong who have three players of a similar level. As well as India, with Saurav Ghosal but also someone like Ramit Tandon. People may not know him a lot (he's studying in the US), but he beat Ali Farag last year in the ToC and he had a big battle with Grégoire Marche in January (the Frenchman won 11-9 in the fifth).

J.E.: One can even imagine that David Palmer could come out of retirement to strenghten the Australian team for the occasion.

G.G: Surely they would be strong with him at number 3 behind Cuskelly and Pilley. But I believe he just took on a new coaching position in the United States so I am not sure whether he would be able to make himself available. 

J.E.: I am changing the subject completely, let's talk about squash in the media. Even if it's been getting better, does it bother you that your sport is not getting more exposure?

G.G: It's definitely a shame, but for squash rather than for myself. As you said, there's been some improvements, especially worldwide. For example, the PSA handed me a book which shows all the TV channels they have deals with. The number of countries who are broadcasting squash is getting interesting. Maybe it's less obvious in France, and I even feel like squash was more exposed in the media ten years ago, for example when Thierry Lincou won the World Championship. Not being an olympic sport definitely does not help, if we were the French Federation would have ten times more resources to develop our sport.

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Despite Grégory Gaultier's but also Camille Serme's great results, squash is still not getting a lot of exposure in the French media (Photo credit: www.greg-gaultier.com)

J.E.: Did you get some media requests following your victory at the British Open?

G.G: I did, mainly from the newspaper L'Equipe as well as some radios. I also got a few interview requests for some blogs through my athlete Facebook page, which I always take the time to reply to.

“I spend most of my spare time with my family.”

J.E.: Let's talk a little bit about your life outside of squash. What do you do in your spare time?

G.G: I mainly spend it with my family. I am not at home very often, so when I go back I do everything I can to spend some quality time with them. My son is 4 years old. He wasn't showing much interest in sport but it's been changing lately (he laughs). We took him skiing for the first time, and he also plays ice hockey and tennis. Otherwise, when I am in Aix I try and see my friends and we go for meals. I live in Prague most of the time, so it's good to catch up with everyone. But having a passion outside of squash and play another sport – for example some football with my friends – is simply impossible when you are a professional athlete. First of all because I already dedicate most of my time to sport, but especially because of the risk of injury. Recovery is our priority. But that doesn't mean I can't blow off some steam from time to time, which is 3 or 4 times in the season at most. For example, there were almost three weeks between the end of the Windy City and the beginning of the British Open, so we had a big party to celebrate my victory!

J.E.: Can you imagine yourself keep playing squash when you get older, for example in Masters events?

G.G: It's too early to tell. Why not, we'll see won't we? But if I do, there's no way I'll keep training hard to maintain a certain level. My feeling is that these events are rather an opportunity to have a good time and catch up with some people you haven't seen for a long time. Having said that, I guess that when you find yourself on court, you still want to win…

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Grégory Gaultier alongside his son Nolan and wife Veronika, former member of the Czech squash national team (Photo credit: Facebook Grégory Gaultier)

 

Grégory Gaultier – Profile

34 years old, world number 1

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(Photo credit: Ouest France)

- 37 titles on the PSA World Tour (in 76 finals) including 14 World Series events (British Open in 2007, 2014 and 2017 and World Series Finals in 2009 and 2016)

- World Champion in 2015

- World Championship runner-up in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013

- European Team Champion in 2015 (fifteen times runner-up)

- World Team Championship runner-up in 2003 and 2009 (bronze medalist in 2005, 2007 ans 2013)

- Nine European Individual Championship titles

- Six French Individual Championship titles

- World Games Champion in 2013

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2015 World Championship (Photo credit: PSA World Tour) 

- World Junior Championship runner-up in 2000

- European Junior Champion in 2000 and 2001

- British Junior Champion in U17 in 1999 and in U19 in 2001

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2000 World Junior Championship (Photo credit: www.geocities.ws)

 

Ranking history

PSA

- World number 1 in November 2009, in February 2014, from April to October 2014, D December 2015 and in April 2017

- In the top 3 since: May 2013

- In the top 6 since: November 2006

- In the top 15 since: September 2003

France

- Number 1 since 2007

 

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